The Tulsa Golden Hurricane will close out a 2020 season for the history books when they square off for the first time ever with the Mississippi State Bulldogs in the Lockheed Martin Armed Forces Bowl on New Year's Eve. This matchup will also be Mississippi State's inaugural appearance in the Armed Forces Bowl, while Tulsa lost both of its previous appearances in 2006 and 2011.
Tulsa's two losses thus far have come by 12 total points to a pair of ranked opponents, book-ending a six-game winning streak that included a trio of victories by six or fewer points with a double-overtime, come-from-behind thriller over Tulane sprinkled in for good measure. But a 16-7 loss at Oklahoma State in Stillwater to open the campaign coupled with a 27-24 loss to Cincinnati in the American Athletic Conference (AAC) Championship Game represent a sign of what could have been for the Golden Hurricane in 2020 as they look to rebound and finish the season with a win.
Mississippi State, meanwhile, struggled mightily throughout the regular season but has a chance to cap off an otherwise disappointing debut under head coach Mike Leach with the program's first bowl win since 2017. The Bulldogs opened with a stunning 44-34 win in Baton Rouge over defending national champion LSU but proceeded to drop their next four games by an average of 21 points including a 41-0 shutout loss to Alabama in Tuscaloosa. After bouncing back to take down Vanderbilt the very next week, Mississippi State lost three in a row before posting a season-high 51 points in a win over Missouri in its regular-season finale.
Lockheed Martin Armed Forces Bowl: No. 24 Tulsa (6-2) vs. Mississippi State (3-7)
Kickoff: Thursday, Dec. 31 at 12 p.m. ET
Where: Amon G. Carter Stadium (Fort Worth, Texas)
Spread: Tulsa -2.5
When Tulsa Has the Ball
Though its record may suggest otherwise, the Golden Hurricane have hardly been prolific during the 2020 season. Tulsa has been held under 30 points in regulation in four straight games, with the double-overtime win over Tulane the only 30-point showing for the Golden Hurricane in the last two months. After throwing for 325 yards and three touchdowns in a 28-24 comeback win over SMU, Zach Smith hasn't been the same since an early exit due to injury against Tulane. Smith has barely mustered that yardage total combined over his last two games, throwing for 168 and 166 yards against Navy and Cincinnati with a single touchdown in each game.
Running back has been a position with numerous contributions for Tulsa, as T.K. Wilkerson paces the team with four touchdowns this season — having notched a pair against East Carolina in an 89-yard effort — while Corey Taylor II has tallied at least 130 yards rushing twice in Tulsa's last three games. Deneric Prince — who scored on Saturday for the first time since late October — and Taylor II have done well to keep the chains moving, as both Prince (5.42) and Taylor II (5.4) rank fourth and fifth, respectively, in yards per carry in the AAC.
Mississippi State has done well to limit opponents in yardage, in part because of the short field surrendered thanks to its 26 turnovers (second-highest total in FBS) committed this season. The Bulldogs possess a top-25 rushing defense at 125.3 yards allowed per game, good for fourth in the SEC. They also have kept teams right around 380 total yards per game, fourth in the conference and a top 50 overall. But their struggles have come where it matters most — on the scoreboard — with seven of their 10 opponents scoring at least 28 points and two (LSU and Alabama) eclipsing 40.
When Mississippi State Has the Ball
K.J. Costello put the SEC on notice when he passed for a conference-record 623 yards and five touchdowns in the win over LSU, but the Stanford transfer missed six weeks in the middle of the season due to an injury suffered against Alabama and has since thrown just one more touchdown. Freshman Will Rogers has taken over and thrived in the back half of the season, notching a pair of three-touchdown games with just three total interceptions in the final two months of the regular season.
Mississippi State has needed everything the two signal-callers have provided through the air, as the offense is dead last in FBS in rushing at a mere 36 yards per game. Until the regular-season finale against Missouri, no Bulldog rushed for even 40 yards in a single game, as Dillon Johnson's 39-yard showing against Arkansas was the high mark until Jo'quavious Marks' 70-yard effort against the Tigers. But there has been no shortage of big games on the receiving front, as three Bulldogs — Osirus Mitchell, Kylin Hill (since opted out of the season), Javonta Payton — surpassed 100 receiving yards against LSU. Jaden Walley has posted four such performances in as many games, topping out with career highs in yards (176) and receptions (nine) on Nov. 28 against Ole Miss.
Tulsa's defense is a big reason why the Golden Hurricane played for an AAC title, as they ranked second in the conference and top 30 nationally in both points (20.8) and yards (340.8) allowed per game. This defense has a knack for making big plays, tied for 10th in FBS with eight tackles for a loss per game and 15th in red-zone defense, holding opponents to a score on 73.3 percent of trips inside the 20-yard line. But Tulsa's defense will be without its best player for this game. Linebacker Zaven Collins, an AP first-team All-American and the winner of the Bronko Nagurski Trophy that goes to the nation's best defensive player, has already announced his intentions to enter the upcoming NFL draft and will not play in the bowl game.
Both teams have had to work through some Achilles heels this season, with Tulsa committing the second-most penalties per game in FBS while Mississippi State features the nation's worst rushing offense and has been plagued by the second-most turnovers (25) of any team. In a matchup with two teams squaring off for the first time, look for Tulsa to rebound and make a statement to close its season.
Prediction: Tulsa 27, Mississippi State 24
— Written by Juan Jose Rodriguez, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a 2019 graduate of the University of Notre Dame. Rodriguez was an intern for Athlon during summer 2017 and worked for a variety of media outlets on campus, including as the Editor-in-Chief of Scholastic Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @JuanJoseRG02.
(Dillon Johnson, Will Rogers photo by Mississippi State Athletics, courtesy of hailstate.com)